It is often noted that the revolutionaries who proclaimed their belief that “all men are created equal” were themselves all white, male, and owners of property – property which included, in many cases, other human beings. Before dismissing the “Founding Fathers” as hypocrites, however, it would be useful to look at what they meant by “equal” and what they saw as their own proper role in the government of their new republics.
The Equality of All
None of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence would have thought for a moment that they and all other men (to say nothing of women and children) were equal in all respects. Obviously, people differ greatly in wealth, intelligence, opportunity, and many other factors. What the Founders were affirming was the equality of all with respect to their rights under the law. The existence of slavery was of course the most glaring betrayal of that principle; but even those slaveholders who did not (mainly for economic reasons) ultimately free their slaves recognized the inconsistency of their situation.
The Duties of Gentlemen
At the time of the revolution, the word “gentleman” had a clearly definable meaning: it denoted a man who, first of all, was wealthy enough not to have to work for a living; and who, as a consequence of his leisure, had the opportunity to acquire a broad range of knowledge. Gentlemen, in this sense, constituted, almost by definition, the governing class.
Who else had both the time to govern and the knowledge to govern well? Even among the common people who were self-educated, who could leave his occupation for long periods of time to serve in public office? The business of governing was, therefore, considered by gentlemen of the time to be a duty only they could fulfill.
The Interests of the Governing Class
The Founders were wary of those with “interests” – today, we would use the term “special interests.” Those with particular occupations would bring those “interests” with them when serving in public office; whereas gentlemen, not beholden to any such “interests,” would be able to govern more dispassionately and equitably for all the people. Today, when “wealth” has come to be identified solely with money, we have the “moneyed interests” themselves as a factor in politics and government; this distinction did not yet exist in the early republic.
The Demise of the Founders’ Ideals
Even before the Revolutionary War was over, the ideals of the gentlemen Founders were eroding. With independence and a growing demand for citizen participation in government, the new states were broadening the franchise, allowing a greater variety of people to vote and to run for office. Inevitably, the “interests” feared by the Founders took on a greater role in government. It was largely to counter this trend that the delegates charged with revising the Articles of Confederation instead drafted an entirely new constitution, attempting to thereby limit the growing “democratical” tendencies among the people.